Everywhere you look or go, there’s another meal deal enticing you to dig in for just four or five bucks. And yes, you get large fries and a drink with that! Unfortunately, fast and processed foods in the U.S. are both abundant and cheap. While satisfying hunger on a dime is gratifying, and sadly too often necessary, this approach to eating contributes to obesity and chronic disease—two very expensive medical issues that continue to trouble America. The good news is, you can eat well without a hefty wallet. How to eat healthy on a budget is easier than you might think.
12 Tips for Stretching Your Food Dollars
1. Build and stick with a list. Write out a grocery list and stick with it. The more prepared you are when shopping, the less money you’ll spend (especially on impulse purchases like Cheetos). Don’t forget to include foods like fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk that are basics to healthy eating (but might not be part of every recipe). To stay speedy and organized, check out this free grocery list template from choosemyplate.gov.
2. Watch and plan for sales. Does your grocery store offer a savings card, weekly circular or regular coupons? Be sure to sign up and take advantage of all the available savings. Rather than grocery shopping based on your weekly meal plan, plan your meals around what’s on sale. This can also push you to be more creative in your kitchen by trying some recipes you haven’t braved before.
3. Populate your pantry. Whenever you can, try to build up your pantry. If possible, reserve a small portion of your food shopping budget to buy one or two pantry items per week. Examples of pantry items you’ll use in a variety of ways may include olive oil, vegetable oil, dried spices, brown sugar, wine vinegar, herbs and a pepper grinder (fresher and much better tasting than pre-ground pepper). Living on a budget may mean building up pantry supplies will take a little time, but that’s okay. Once your pantry is well stocked, you’ll have a world of flavor at your fingertips.
4. Maintain some order in your fridge (and freezer). Leftovers are kind to your budget and your hunger, but the concept doesn’t exactly work if they go MIA in the back of your fridge or freezer. Label your leftovers, and maintain some order in your refrigerator and freezer. Package and freeze foods in the amount you’ll actually use (such as chicken pieces by twos).
5. You’d better shop around. The traditional grocery store isn’t the only place to buy your food. There are other places that may offer cheap, healthy food-buying options, including discount stores (e.g., Costco and Sam’s), farmers’ markets, and ethnic markets and corner stores.
When shopping at discount warehouse stores, be mindful of large portions. You may want to freeze products in smaller portion sizes for manageable use.
If you visit a farmers’ market toward the end of the market, some vendors might sell you perishable products at a deeper discount. Plus, you’re supporting your local economy and the environment!
Compare brand names with generic brands at conventional stores. In many cases, “store brand” or generic brands will be cheaper (and the quality will be the same).
6. Forage for your fruits and veggies. Seek out fruits and vegetables not only in the produce section, but also in the frozen, canned and pantry food aisles. Compare all prices to find the best deals.
When buying fresh, buy what’s in season. These varieties are usually less expensive and at peak flavor. Remember to buy only what you need to avoid spoilage and waste.
It’s nutritionally sound to buy canned, but choose fruit canned in 100-percent fruit juice and vegetables that have “low-sodium” or “no salt added” on the label.
Have extra freezer space? Pick up frozen veggies without added sauces or butter. Frozen vegetables are just as good for you and may cost you less.
7. Choose less-expensive cuts of meat. Yes, you really can still eat meat if you’re on a tight budget. For example, instead of chicken breasts, choose chicken thighs. To make potentially tougher cuts of meat more tender and flavorful, experiment with different cooking methods, such as using a slow cooker. While turkey and chicken often offer better dollar and health values, don’t fear beef. Certain cuts of beef are frequently on sale at the grocery store. By purchasing cheaper (and sometimes fattier) cuts, you can usually score a great deal. Keep in mind, fat is an important part of a balanced diet and not always the enemy.
8. Welcome whole grains and beans. Beans and whole grains, such as quinoa, freekeh and brown rice are delicious, inexpensive, and a great way to add bulk to your meals. For example, stretch your meat by using black beans in chili or turkey burgers. (You can make a huge batch of chili and freeze it for later use, too.) Vegetarian sources of proteins, like beans and lentils, are not only cheap, but nutritious and tasty, too. Other good sources of less-expensive, high-quality protein include nuts and seeds.
9. Eggs are excellent edibles. If you have eggs in your fridge, you’re minutes away from a nutritious meal. Scramble eggs with leftovers. Put eggs in a salad. Drop an egg on top of a plate of stir-fried veggies. One caveat about eggs: if you can afford to buy more expensive ones, they usually taste better and may have a longer shelf life. Really fresh eggs, like those you can buy at a farmers’ market, can make a big difference in the flavor department.
10. Cook in bulk. Choose one or two days a week to cook meals that can be eaten on multiple days.
At the beginning of the week, double a recipe and use the rest later in the week or freeze half for another day. Simply add a salad or a small side dish and you have an easy meal at the ready.
Soups, stews, casseroles or other one-pot dishes are ideal because they save on preparation time, as well as money and dish washing. They make perfect leftovers, too.
11. Cultivate your culinary curiosity. Certain cuisines, such as Mexican and Indian, depend heavily on beans, rice and other inexpensive ingredients. If you’re not a fan of these cuisines, try to broaden your horizons. For instance, burritos can be a flavorful, affordable option for most leftovers. (Think: less food waste equals cheap.) Remember, rice is an inexpensive staple and they don’t have to be meat-heavy either. You can be creative and use a lot of ingredients interchangeably.
12. Hail to H2O. Skip the sodas and sugary drinks, and drink water instead. Tap water has zero calories and is easy on your budget. Purchase a reusable water bottle and keep it with you wherever you go and whenever your thirst strikes.
How to Eat Healthy on a Budget by Building Your Grocery List
How to eat healthy on a budget begins with your grocery list. To fill your cart the cost-conscious and healthy way, we recommend browsing ChooseMyPlate’s “Tips for Every Aisle.” We’ve also gathered some items you might want to jot down on your list (many of these items are under $2 per serving):
Oats: Eating a healthy serving of oatmeal for breakfast will save you money, as well as lower your risk of heart disease (oats help to reduce cholesterol).
Eggs: Eggs are a go-to food that you can use for a variety of meals. The protein and fat in eggs also help keep you feeling full longer.
Brown rice: Brown rice is a good source of fiber, and is a great addition for side dishes, casseroles, soups, stews and more.
Potatoes: A single red potato is chock full of folate, which may help lower your risk of depression and certain forms of cancer- and may also offer some protection against stroke.
Bananas: Bananas are carb-loaded to promote lasting energy and contain plenty of potassium (which helps maintain a healthy blood pressure and may reduce the risk of stroke).
Whole-wheat bread: Two slices of whole-wheat bread contain about 120 calories, 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. Stuffing, croutons, bread pudding, breakfast strata—sure, you can use bread for more than sandwiches.
Broccoli: A single stalk of broccoli contains your daily recommended amount of vitamin K and about twice your recommended dose of vitamin C.
Apples: Have you seen our infographic on the health perks of apples?
Nonfat Greek yogurt: You don’t have to buy it single-serve. You can buy a larger container and portion it out. Greek yogurt is jammed with protein, and can make a great snack or smoothie ingredient.
Chickpeas: Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are high in fiber and protein. Cook them with spices for a flavorful, satisfying meal.
Beets: It’s that red root vegetable packed with nutrients. Do not let them intimidate you. For some inspiration, check out these recipes from Cooking Light.
Frozen veggies: Fresh vegetables are wonderful, but don’t be afraid to pick up some frozen or canned vegetables. They are nutritionally dense and often a better value because they last a lot longer.
Chicken and/or turkey: To lower your meat costs, buy the family-sized or value pack and freeze out portions. If you opt for ground beef, try to buy the leanest ground beef you can find.
Whole-grain pasta: Pasta allows you to have a meal in a snap, so stock up on the whole-grain kind (it has more fiber and protein).
Spinach: Popeye had it right. Spinach contains two immune-boosting antioxidants important for eye health. It’s also considered a cancer-fighting superfood.
Avocados: Watch for these green goddesses to go on sale, as they are nutritionally dense with loads of potassium and fiber, as well as vitamins C and B-6. They can offer an amazing price per nutrient value.
Canned tuna: A single can of albacore tuna contains about 120 calories and 28 grams of protein, and can cost a buck (or less). For variety, be sure to look for other canned fish options, such as salmon. (Note: Pregnant women should limit their consumption of albacore tuna or canned tuna altogether, due to mercury levels.)
Legumes: Besides chickpeas, beans and lentils (particularly if you purchase them in bags) are a superior price per nutrient value as they are chocked full of fiber and protein, as well as vitamins A and C. They are great for salads, soups, dips and more. Lentils are especially user-friendly because they cook fast without pre-soaking.
Recipes to Get Your Inspiration Cooking
You can save money by eating more meals at home (plus, it nurtures family bonding), and still make sure those breakfasts, lunches and dinners feature healthy choices like whole grains, vegetables and beans.
Not sure where to get started? Here are 5 recipes to spark some inspiration:
1. Move over chicken breasts, there’s something tastier (and reasonably priced): chicken thighs. Here’s a Lemon Thyme Chicken Thigh recipe worth serving and savoring.
2. Who doesn’t like macaroni and cheese? Boost the health of this traditional family-favorite recipe by using wheat penne pasta and adding cauliflower.
3. Put those eggs to scrumptious use with this Spinach and Egg Sandwich recipe from The Food Network.
4. Feed the whole family with this Beef and Black Bean Chili recipe that’s easy on the wallet and waistline. (Makes 8 servings.)
5. Don’t skip the dessert. Indulge in this yummy Peach Coffee Cake recipe from you can easily make on a hectic weeknight.
For more inspiration, check out the Good and Cheap cookbook from Leanne Brown. This free and handy guide gives you all sorts of delicious recipes using only the most basic and inexpensive foods. In fact, Leanne claims you can eat well on only $4 a day with these recipes!